I’ve been trying to unpack some musings on Hekate and her involvement with the transformation of humans into animal forms. Unpacking this immediately after a bad head cold is possibly a little adventurous so apologies for the rough nature, I’m sure I will come back to it in the future.
Gale the Witch
“I have heard that the land-marten (or polecat) was once a human being. It has also reached my hearing that Gale was her name then; that she was a dealer in spells and a sorceress (Pharmakis); that she was extremely incontinent, and that she was afflicted with abnormal sexual desires. Nor has it escaped my notice that the anger of the goddess Hekate transformed it into this evil creature. May the goddess be gracious to me : fables and their telling I leave to others.”
Aelian, On Animals 15. 11 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.)
This is no Dorothy Gale, all Midwest homeliness and pigtails. This Gale is a witch dealing mainly in spells and sorcery and, according to Aelian, possessing of an “incontinent nature and abnormal sexual desires”. I don’t want to make too much of the whole sexual desires thing here, it is much done and doesn’t really need repeating as the sole reason for her punishment. I think it is safe to assume that by the standards of the time she was a lady of unconventional appetites. We might also construe that Gale has a habit of misusing her powers as a sorceress for personal gain and that she also had a habit of going back on a deal. Given that Hekate is the Goddess of Witches and Pharmakis (sorcery) it is likely that Gale was a priestess or devotee of Hers, in the same way that Medea is a Sorceress Priestess of Hekate. Even putting any kinky inclinations to one side we could well believe that Hekate was dissatisfied with her priestess for her misuse of her goddess-given abilities, and sought to punish her appropriately.
Of the three examples of metamorphose associated with Hekate this is the only example of Hekate causing the transformation and doing so with the intent to punish and that this is Gale’s punishment is explicit in the text. The polecat is described as being an ‘evil creature’, possibly because it produces a pungent scent when threatened and their mating process is, by some standards, a bit rough and polygamous, meaning that one male will take many partners. Presumably it was through that this displayed her ‘abnormal sexual’ activities whilst the habits and appearance of the polecat might lead it to be associated with evil. Interestingly the Anglo-Manx indigenous name for the Polecat is Fowl-Cat and many indigenous names play around with the flow/powl sound, so there is something about this animal that is considered unclean.
Galinthias the Nurse
“…They turned her into a deceitful weasel (polecat), making her live in crannies and gave her a grotesque way of mating. She is mounted through the ears and gives birth by bringing forth her young through the throat. Hekate felt sorry for this transformation of her appearance and appointed her a sacred servant of herself.”
Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 29 (trans. Celoria) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)
In comparison to Gale, Galinthias appears to be a little more in-step with the society of her time. Antoninus Liberalis gives us the most detailed account of this transformation, which came about after Galinthias dared to intervene with the punishment of Alkmene being meted out by the Moiria at the behest of Hera. By folding their arms and refusing to participate in the birth of Herakles by forming and measuring his lifes thread the Moiria were prolonging the birth pains of Alkmene, punishment from Hera for her involvement with Zeus. Galinthias feared for the sanity of Alkmene and invoked the name of Zeus, telling the Moiria that a boy had already been born. This confused the Moiria enough that their arms dropped and the birth was allowed to take place.
Galinthias did the
triple. She diverted the will of the Moiria, in doing so she diverted the will of Hera and at the same time managed to drop the Moiria in hot water with Hera. And she did all this by telling a lie. Way to go girl!
Despite her best intentions the Moiria and Hera are not gracefully thwarted and as a punishment the Moiria turn Galinthias into a polecat (sometimes translated as marten or weasel). In this case her punishment comes through the very nature of the polecats reproduction and the way the Greeks thought the process worked. Presumably they saw the rough neck pulling, which we know stimulates ovulation in the female, as being the process of impregnation “she is mounted through the ears…” and the habit of polecats to move their offspring by carrying in their mouth as being a continuation of the theme “…gives birth by bringing forth her young through the throat.”
On this occasion the references we have state that Hekate felt sorry for Galinthias and takes her on as a sacred servant out of pity for her changed form. Why would Hekate be so concerned in this instance? I can think of a couple of reasons but they are merely supposition on my part.
Galinthias is a described alternative as a friend of Alkmene and also a nurse, presumably indicating that she is a midwife which is a profession that falls under the realm of Hekate as Nurse of the Young (Kourotrophos). Also, Galinthias is referred to as being a maiden and from this is it possible to infer a couple of things.The first is that Galinthias is likely unwed and secondly that she has not given birth herself. I have already discussed elsewhere about Hekate’s association with women who failed in their primary social goal of motherhood in ancient Greece and Rome and it is possible that this is an extension of that role. Another thing we can imply is that, given that Galinthias intervened to ensure the birth of Herakles son of Zeus and that she invoked His name in her intervention, Hekate was rewarding her for her actions as a close confidant of Zeus.
Hekabe – the Hound of Hekate
“… Hecuba, rage linked with grief, oblviious of her years . . . made her way to Polymestor, author of that foul murder, and sought an audience . . . She attacked the king and dug her fingers in his eyes, his treacherous eyes, and gouged his eyeballs out . . . Incensed to see their king’s calamity, the Thracians started to attack the queen with sticks and stones, but she snaped at the stones, snarling, and whn her lips were set to grame words and she tried to speak, she barked.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses 14. 430 & 561 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)
In Hekabe we once again see Hekate favouring the changed. What actually causes Hekabe to change varies in different accounts, and no one deity is named as being responsible. Regardless of who causes it is a divine force that causes her transformation into a black bitch and it is Hekate that accepts her as her servant.
In my mind there are two interpretations as to why Hekabe might have been transformed. Firstly it is a punishment for attacking Polymestor and echoes the anger of the Thracians. Secondly it is a mercy, saving the Queen from a horrific death by stoning.
Both are equally plausible but I err on the side of the transformation coming as a mercy, as Hekabe is taking an act of revenge which is a common theme in Greek mythology and is not an act that it universally looked down upon by the Greeks (in fact it is an act that is sometimes celebrated). Hekabe displays a strong sense of loyalty and justice in her actions, two themes that sit well with Hekate and it makes sense that she would accept someone displaying such attributes so clearly.
As an animal the dog is often associated with loyalty, the phrase “a mans best friend” is often repeated when talking about canine loyalty. It makes sense as well that any canine being associated with Hekate would be described as black. Also, the direct and physical nature of Hekabe’s attack against Polymestor might also explain why it is the dog, rather than any other animal, that is associated with Hekabe. She goes for the face, she savages him with clawed hands. Her attack was unanticipated and the men around her unprepared, which can often be the case in dog attacks where a trusted pet suddenly turns for no apparent reason (there is always a reason, we just don’t always see it)
Other Musings (aka the Really Rough Stuff)
In the case of Hekabe and Galinthias it is not Hekate that causes their transformations but it is She who accepts the transformed woman into her coterie. In both cases the women are rejected, both for meddling in the affairs of powers greater their own. They are women using their own wit and power to challenge what society might have perceived as greater and for that they are punished through transformation.
It is interesting that it is these women, rather than others transformed throughout Greek mythology, that Hekate takes as Her own.
Here is where my musing jumps around a bit. I can’t rationally join the this idea with the last but by writing it down maybe I’ll get there.
In a way I feel that this situation ties into her epithet Borborophorba, meaning Eater of Filth. Usually this relates to Hekate taking on the negative aspects of the soul into herself. She absorbs it, exists with it but normally this attribute is wholly chthonic and she does not cleanse or negate its negative aspect. On the other hand I look at this with an Orphic view would see this as a positive action, in the same way that the Egg absorbs negativity and transforms it into a positive attribute. Hekate takes within herself all that is negative and does not serve us to that we are cleansed. She takes what is negative and turns it into a positive.
In the same way she takes the negative transformations of Galinthias and Hekabe and turns them in to a positive association with Herself. By associating them with her she removes the taint that might have been associated with their actions.
On the other hand the tale of Gale is a clear and stark warning, no not misuse those gifts that she gives us.
What other lessons lie in Hekate’s tales of metamorphose? Each tale has its own lessons on the surface, and probably deeper than those we can see at a glance. What else does Hekate want to tell us about metamorphosis both in mythology and in our own lives? How can we use the mythology to examine the changes that occur in our own lives?
Interesting thoughts, I’m sure I will come back to this not I’ve had this first formation of the first thought… watch this space.